Saturday, December 8, 2012

Semi-Solo in Madrid

This post actually should have been up a week ago but I just haven't been in writing mode.  I came back from Madrid exhausted and then wasn't feeling 100% most of this week - work was challenge enough.  Add in no school for the kids Thursday and Friday and yup, not much is getting done.  But now I'm there... in the zone... ready to write.

So last weekend I went to Madrid, alone... well sort of.  And with the exception of travel back to the US, this is the only time I've ever travelled solo, and I think it was long overdue.  The opportunity to travel on my own is slightly intimidating though just a little less so since I do know the language here and I can function just fine.  A friend of mine went to Germany on her own and I admire her navigating the transit system (which went slightly awry) much less everything else!!

Anyways, so like I said, this was a semi-solo trip - I was actually meeting a friend of mine in Madrid for part of the weekend.  He was attending a conference and I would do the tourism thing and we'd meet up on Friday night after the conference and Saturday after it was done in the afternoon with both of us heading back to Barcelona mid day on Sunday.  About half on my own and half with my friend.

For me this trip would be about taking some time to myself outside of home - yes, I work from home and get plenty of "quiet" time, however, as everyone knows, it's not the same quiet time at home as it is when you are somewhere else with no laundry, dishes or work to be done.  Being on my own for half of the trip meant doing the touristy thing on my own, something I haven't done before and wasn't 100% sure on how I was going to go about doing it.  And quite honestly, was a little ambivalent and yet at the same time, excited about embarking on this opportunity to expand my horizons beyond my comfort zone.

Ah comfort zone... yes, you know what that is, right?  Yeah, believe it or not, I am not a fan of leaving it.  I do it... because I don't want to limit myself.  But it takes a lot for me to do it.  Yes, I know, I moved to Spain so I must be at least somewhat ok with it, right?  Yeah, no... look back at the start of this blog and you'll be reminded of just how far I've come.  So speaking of my comfort zone, part of the deal with this trip with my friend is that we would speak in Spanish the entire time (except meal times I was told).

What's the big deal you ask?  You live in Spain and so therefore, must speak, at least, some Spanish.  Sure, I do.  And I've got a Spanish tutor that is helping me twice a week to expand on my ability to someday speak this language with semi-fluency.  And daily, I speak in Spanish, whether to order fruit and veggies from a kiosk in a market to making appointments to even today when I had to give the woman our shoe sizes so we could go ice skating.  I'm functionally able to speak Spanish.  And I can spell my name, give you my address and my phone number like a pro.  Oh, and how long I've lived here, the number of children I have and why we live here.  Yup, can do all that pretty well.  But to get into some deep seeded conversation about life in general... to speak for more than 30 minutes about anything... well, that's a bit intimidating.

Ok, that's a lot intimidating.  And even more so because he and I don't speak in Spanish together normally.  We speak in English, the language we've always spoken together.  And so pride often gets in the way of me speaking Spanish in front of him.  I am able to put myself out there on a daily basis with just about anyone and not worry about my accent or how well I'm able to put a sentence together but with my friend, I just can't bring myself to do it.  I don't know why.  I know he won't make fun of me; I know he'll be encouraging... and yet, I can't do it.

So anyways, I've totally gone off on a tangent setting you up for the "big" trip on my own.  Probably not necessary but wanted to get it out there.  This is out of the norm for me and that's a good thing, from a variety of standpoints.  My flight to Madrid, barely one hour, was pretty uneventful other than the woman 2 seats over from me who seemed to think her earbuds were plugged into her iphone, only I could hear her music over mine which leads me to believe that no, lady, your earbuds are not plugged in right and perhaps you might want to fix them.

Ok, ok, so I got to Madrid no worse for the wear.  And in a total non-Julie (more so a non-solo Julie move) moment, I decided to forgo the taxi and take public transit.  I went to the information desk to get a metro map and to figure out how to get from the airport to my hotel.  I can navigate the metro pretty well in Barcelona and figured it can't be that hard to do here either.  And I was right.  I'm sure a cab would have been faster but I couldn't beat 5 euros to get within a 2 minute walk of my hotel near Plaza de Castilla.  And I was pretty proud to have done it on my own with no one guiding the way.

I found my hotel without a problem, grabbed my Top 10 Madrid book (which was in Spanish by the way) and headed off with a mission to get down towards the center to see the Palacio Real, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor.  After looking at a map (which I should have dove prior to arrival) decided to chance the metro again heading towards Plaza España which would put me within reasonable walking distance of where I wanted to be. And wouldn't you know, just like in BCN I was "blessed" with metro musicians!  Awww just like home.

Right off the bat I have to say that part of me enjoyed the freedom of just picking up to go without having to wait for anyone.  There is something liberating about being on my own, not catering to anyone else's needs, eating when I'm ready, skipping sites I might not care about and hey let's not downplay the time for reflection on life - sure I have a lot of alone time in BCN but its home and there is always something that needs to be done.  To be away gives me the freedom to stop, step back and take a moment to just process my life these days - good and bad.

However, on the flip side of this, it's also a bit lonely doing the touristy thing by oneself.  No one to talk about what you are seeing.  No one to give insight into your surroundings.  And no one to just keep you company.  So I guess there are pros and cons to everything.  I'm not saying I won't do this again on my own, but it's not as much fun on my own as it is with other people.  However, I'm also glad that I took the opportunity to do a little solo travel and everyone should do it at some point just for the experience.

Madrid is a much bigger city than Barcelona.  It also feels a bit more modern to me.  There were many hills which reminded me of Lisbon a little bit.  I would have buns of steel by the time I was done, for sure!  With the whole day ahead of me I just walked in the general direction of where I wanted to go, taking pictures along the way.  Sometimes I had to remind myself I wasn't in a rush and I could stop and take as many pictures as I wanted to or even just sit for a minute.  I'm definitely not used to this kind of travel!  And as my stomach started to growl, I remembered another reason I like to travel with others - eating alone is not much fun :(

And with a hungry belly leading the way, I found that I am even more indecisive than normal when I'm left to my own devices.  Thankfully right off the bat I found a little market that had a churros stand.  While I've had churros and chocolate in Barcelona, I've never really looked that closely at these stands. And it happens they had this yummy filled churro called a rellena.  I believe we have them here but like anything else I guess sometimes you have to leave home to find new things.  Anyways, this fried yumminess was filled with dulce de leche and was absolutely to die for.  One of many unhealthy things I ate over the weekend... thank goodness for the gym on Monday!!!

Plaza Espanya

Churro booth

I walked aimlessly for the most part and ended up doing a pretty decent sized circle that encompassed the majority of what I had wanted to see - Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor and Puerta de Sol.  And the majority of these places I was able to get to via pedestrian streets - that I absolutely loved about Madrid.  We certainly have some narrow pedestrian streets here and many streets appear to be pedestrian only and it's not til you hear a car behind you that you realize otherwise.  But these were wide, open pedestrian walkways - easily could fit at least 2 cars but instead were filled to the brim with people walking.  Tons of shops, restaurants, cafes and more.

Plaza de Oriente

View of the Royal Palace from Plaza de Oriente

Plaza de Oriente

Back of the Royal Palace

Plaza de Oriente

Fountain by the Royal Palace

Plaza de Oriente

Gorgeous street signs on most corners

Church along Calle Arenal

Better view of the church

Puerta del Sol

Another angle of Puerta del Sol

Pedestrian streets

Gran Via

For my New England friends :)

Mercado San Miguel - probably the best food market I've been to in Spain

View near the Mercado San Miguel

Inside Mercado San Miguel - does not do it justice by any means

Square as I was walking around...

Very cool tiles in the street

Royal Palace from the front

Royal Palace... was too hungry to go inside though... 

Better view of the Royal Palace

View from a distance...

What was interesting and a sign of the economy was that I saw countless people wearing vests with "compro oro" on them.  "I buy gold".  Yes, we have a bunch of these stores in Barcelona too, but not like they have in Madrid and with people on every corner handing out flyers about the gold they will buy from you, it just showed me one more way that these people are trying to deal with a very tough economy here in Spain.

Lots of guys with Compro Oro vests on...

While I was wandering about, I was also in search of Christmas markets.  After all, tis the season.  The city was hung with magnificent looking lights lining the majority of the streets I walked along (none of which by the way were lit up at night yet despite being the beginning of Dec - perhaps waiting for the holiday of this weekend to light them up?).  European Christmas markets are unlike anything I've ever seen before - full of adorable kiosks, artisan vendors, delicious local food and of course, Christmas decorations - ornaments, toys for kids, and items indigenous to that area.  Here in Barcelona we've got caga tios and caganers that you won't find anywhere but in Catalunya.

In Madrid... well, maybe I didn't look hard enough.  But the two markets that I did find, just didn't feel very Christmassy.  One didn't have any sort of Christmas goodies and the other was full of just plain tacky items, mainly for children.  My mission - an ornament for my tree... Fail.  Nothing.  I'm sure there was a bigger, better market out there but it managed to elude me and my friend during the weekend.  I tried to plug in "mercats de nadal" into google however, given that that is Catalan and not Spanish would explain why nothing in Madrid came up - it also explains why my Spanish still sucks, I'm stuck in a world with 2 languages.  I'll just have to find my Christmas fix here in Barcelona or perhaps a day trip somewhere else during the season.

Local market that I think was supposed to be a Christmas market only there were no Christmas goods

Market at Plaza Mayor

Market at Plaza Mayor

More of Plaza Mayor

Lights hung for Christmas

Plaza Mayor

This is one of the most beautiful buildings I've seen... click the picture to see closer up

Slightly closer picture

Friday night was low key.  After walking the 3.5 miles back to my hotel I got myself together for dinner out with Ed.  And after an "American" day of McDonalds and Starbucks, I definitely didn't anticipate our going to TGI Friday's for dinner, but what a way to wind up an American day in Spain.  And seriously I can't say no to mozzarella sticks, potato skins and quesadillas (in addition to great conversation which we would have had anywhere).  The only disappointment of my first Spanish TGI Fridays experience... the drink menu.  Pages long in the US, it was sadly cut down here - no Mudslides for me :(  But given I ate a ton of calories that night, certainly I didn't need to drink any more.  And the same 3.5 mile walk back to the hotel was very much needed after all we ate!!

Saturday morning I once again started off on my own while Ed finished up his conference.  Our plan was to meet up around 2:30 to get lunch.  Since I saw many of the sights I had wanted to do the day before, I decided to head to the other side of the city center to the Parque del Retiro.

Whereas on Friday I felt that I was seeing the more economically harder hit areas of Madrid, on Saturday I saw just the opposite as I walked down Calle Serrano.  Similar to Passeig de Gracia here in Barcelona, Calle Serrano was lined with high end shopping from one end to another - and my wallet (and Josh) are appreciative that I didn't go into any of them.  But it was a very pretty street to walk down and gave me a different perspective of Madrid that I didn't see on my first day.

Walking along Calle Serrano, I eventually wound up at el Parque del Retiro.  Similar, but much larger, to our Ciutadella Park here, this was a grassy area in the center of the city that also had small row boats to rent to cross over a small pond.  Tons of little trails to walk along, benches to sit upon and even little buildings that hosted plays and music along the way.  And of course, don't forget street vendors which were out in abundance on a beautiful fall day.  I took some time to relax and enjoy my surroundings before heading back to the hotel to meet Ed for lunch and more sightseeing.

Cool archways on my way to Parque del Retiro

Interesting statue that I thought was hundreds and hundreds of years old - but in actuality was barely 100 years old.

Holidays are alive on Calle Serrano

This is the BIGGEST flag I've ever seen in my life!

Arch near Parque del Retiro

View of the Palace through the Arch

Entrance to Parque del Retiro

Parque del Retiro

This looked like a squirrel crossed with a rabbit... interesting to say the least

After lunch, we didn't have much more luck in our search for Christmas markets but we did find a cool outdoor bar/restaurant to hang out at.  Now, most of Europe is full of outdoor cafes so it's not that unusual to find.  But this one was trying to "be" like an indoor bar but also had super comfy fur chairs to keep warm in while under the heat lamps.  People watching, a mojito or two and great conversation make for a fantastic afternoon that made me appreciate travelling non-solo.

La Bienquerida for mojitos (and furry chairs)

That night we met up with Ed's friend, Guillermo and his friends.  This was the test, the Spanish test.  Because thankfully Ed had been really great about not making me speak Spanish so far.  And since I was unsure about this whole experiment to begin with, I pretty much avoided bringing it up in conversation for fear that he would make me start doing it!!  A wimp, I know.  But no, he didn't forget. And while Guillermo spoke some English, he told me he didn't speak much and neither did his friends so it would be solo español for me for the rest of the night.  Oh my...

And I tried, really I did.  It might not have appeared like I did, but I wanted to prove that when push comes to shove, I can do this.  However, we went to a restaurant that was pretty loud.  And apparently Madrid Spanish is a whole lot faster than Barcelona Spanish.  So trying to hear, translate and understand the conversation was a huge challenge.  And mentally exhausting.  Every now and again they would ask me if they were speaking too fast and I would just say "esta bien".  I got bits and pieces and actually picked up on when they would go off on different tangents, I just wouldn't realize it was a new tangent until a few minutes in which means I missed the first few minutes of a new conversation.  I was silent, just taking it all in.  Every now and again Ed would ask "you want to punch me, don't you?" and I would respond, "no, I'm fine".  And I was fine.  So long as I didn't have to speak, I was fine.  And that was the tell tale sign that I was drowning because he said "you usually talk a lot more than this".  Really me???  Talk a lot?  Nooooo!!!

With dinner done I thought I might be home free but Guillermo had invited us out to a bar with him and his friends.  I had the option to call it a night here but I was willing to give it another try at the very least while walking to the bar.  I got as far as where I'm from, how long I've lived in Barcelona and the weather in Barcelona compared to Boston.  It's a start and I've got to start somewhere.  But at least the ice was sort of broken.  And they seemed like nice guys so I wanted to show that I can be social too... in Spanish.

We entered the bar and it was pretty obvious the moment we got in there that it was a gay bar with me actually saying to Ed "You know, I'm pretty sure we are in a gay bar"... ya think?  This wasn't unexpected given that our hosts were in fact, gay.  But for some reason I wasn't totally expecting this and it took a moment for it to register for me - I think the fact that there were no other women in the bar was the giveaway.  But it was fine and it was actually a ton of fun and oh, it turns out that most of them speak English, so ha!!!  I won ;)  Well sort of.  I also lose because it means I didn't practice my Spanish as much as I planned to do.  But at least it meant I finally got to relax and enjoy myself.

Ed and I with our new friends... 

And we did enjoy ourselves.  Through 2 bars and then a club.  Dancing the night away til 5:30 in the morning.  Interestingly, a small world moment, while in line for the club I had some gum.  I gave some to a few of the guys with us and then a girl behind me asked in American English for a piece.  So of course, given I'm in Spain, I asked where she's from in the States.  And she goes to college (damn I feel old) in the same town that Josh and I went to college.  Small world.

Anyways, the grand plan was to meet up at 9AM (yes after getting in at 5:30) on Sunday to do a little more sightseeing before our train/flight just after noontime.  And no, we didn't make it.  As a matter of fact, I barely made it through the day.  Ed and I met up an hour before we had to leave for "breakfast" but never actually ate, rather recapping the events of the night and just how not great we were feeling (and I'm putting that mildly).  It was an incredibly long 2 hour wait at the airport and an even longer one hour flight home.  But I made it back, slightly worse for the wear, but having had a great weekend away semi-solo in Madrid!


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